“Generally, I think we’re quite good at communication in our school. Feedback suggests that our home and educator communities feel informed and are satisfied with the systems we have in place. However, I do have a concern about our Senior Leadership Team meetings. It’s hard to get everybody together as often as I’d like. And when we do, there’s always so much to go through. I don’t think any of us is very satisfied with our meetings. We’ve established some protocols in terms of agendas and minutes, as well as listening to each other and not interrupting. But I still don’t think we’ve got it right.”
Fatima, International School Headteacher

What’s going on here? Fatima has an experienced and talented team around her and everyone is committed to working together to move the school forward; yet still she feels they are underperforming in meetings. A lack of time, as well as the general pressures of running a school are very likely to be significant contributory factors. But maybe there is an additional explanation for what is happening.

A professional meeting is a complex sociological phenomenon where numerous influencing factors come into play. When we are aware of a particular dynamic or behaviour that is derailing a meeting, we can take measures to correct matters. However not all such factors are immediately apparent and often we struggle to identify what is going wrong.

Developing an awareness of our communication palate, the ‘voices’ we use when we are engaging with our colleagues is an important starting point for putting things right. We all have our own favoured talk styles, default approaches which we deploy in meetings and other interactions. Gaining insight into what these styles are and the extent to which we use them is the first step to being able to consciously manage their deployment. A self-awareness of our go-to communication styles can help us to tailor our approach, ensuring we are not using them inappropriately or excessively.

Similarly, by developing an understanding of where the ‘gaps’ are in our talk palate, we can work to bring greater variety and flexibility to our interactions.

One way of gaining such insight is through Voice-Print, a model which defines 9 ‘voices’, which everyone uses to greater or lesser extents in their professional interactions. Through the Voice-Print self-assessment, the characteristic but usually unconscious patterns in the use of these voices are surfaced. Armed with their Voice-Print profiles, school leadership teams can use a common language to monitor, analyse and modify the way they are communicating.

Effective communications

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Voice Print can also help teams to identify each other’s ‘hot buttons’ when it comes to communication. Each of the nine voices has a ‘dark side’, an unhelpful counterpart which can be perceived by colleagues if a particular voice is being over or inappropriately used. So for example, someone who uses the ‘advocate’ voice a lot is in danger of being seen as preaching by some members of the team. Similarly a person who has a tendency towards employing ‘probe’ is at risk of coming across as intruding. The secret to development here is not to stop using certain voices, simply to be aware of how often and when the voices are being used and crucially to be aware of the impact of one’s approach on others.

Communication and collaboration are at the heart of effective practice and leadership in international education; indeed one of the International Baccalaureate Standards for IB World Schools is: ‘The school promotes open communication based on understanding and respect’. This sort of high quality communication  is especially important at a senior level in international schools, in order to ensure leadership teams are truly harnessing their strengths for the purpose of improving student learning.

Fatima and her colleagues, as skilled and committed as they are, could well be underperforming as a team because of a lack of awareness of themselves and each other as communicators. A better understanding of how approach and expression impact conversations could enable them to improve their collaborative potential, to the benefit of everyone in the community.

Another international school head demonstrated this when he spoke about the impact a ‘voice aware’ approach had on his own team’s work:

“An organisation which seeks to teach effective communication skills to young people should be acutely aware of how well it communicates with itself. At Senior Management Team level we have already noticed a difference in terms of our awareness of each other’s profiles and how we move forward meetings that might otherwise have got ‘stuck’.”

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